In order to silence critics of Kyrgyzstan’s president, prosecutors earlier this year took a punitive approach by filing financially crippling libel suits on his behalf.
The most prominent victim of this tactic has been feisty news website Zanoza.kg. In July, the website was found guilty of libel on five counts and ordered to pay 27 million som ($390,000) in total – a dizzying and impossible amount for a fledging operation.
The journalists and rights activists slapped with the absurdly high judgments are taking a sanguine approach for the time being. “If I put away 100 som ($1.5) daily, then that will come to 36,000 som in a year. At that rate you would have to put money away for…” Zanoza.kg reporter Naryn Aiyp told EurasiaNet.org, his words trailing off. “It is just a senseless process.”
As the author of the articles deemed libelous, Aiyp is personally liable to pay a 9 million som (roughly $130,000) penalty. To put it all in perspective, the average monthly wage in Kyrgyzstan in 2017 is about $222, according to a report published by the AKIpress news agency.
Aiyp said he would have been more worried about the damages if the sum was realistic, but as it is, there is no likelihood he can ever pay off the amount. “Let them come up with a sum and I will pay it. As to my property, I am worried. But what can you do? I guess I’ll become a bum,” he joked.
Pervomaisky District Court, in Bishkek, went a step further in late July when it ruled that Zanoza.kg could no longer operate under that name and brand. The website has since been renamed Kaktus, but the general tenor of its output remains essentially unchanged.
Katie Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia division at Article 19, a London-based group advocating for freedom of expression, said in an August 1 statement that it is unorthodox for a nation’s president to go after critics in such a manner.
“Under no circumstances should special legal protection be granted for heads of state or other public officials, whatever their rank or status,” Morris said. “Moreover, under international law the state has no right to bring a civil lawsuit of any kind on behalf of someone else, It is therefore deeply problematic that the General Prosecutor has initiated these lawsuits on [President Almazbek] Atambayev’s behalf.”
The General Prosecutor’s Office initially filed a similar suit against the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, but it dropped its claim after the broadcaster’s president, Thomas Kent, flew to Bishkek to plead with Atambayev in person.
While the damages demanded of Zanoza.kg are unusually large, there is nothing new about asking citizens and entities deemed to have committed libel for sums of cash that clearly extend beyond their capabilities. And those instances may well serve as a precedent that undermines the government’s ability to inflict pain on its opponents.
Back in 2015, Chui regional court ordered Dayirbek Orunbekov, editor of small Kyrgyz language outlet Maalymat.kg, to pay Atambayev $26,000 in damages for articles suggesting he was responsible for sparking the bloody ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country in 2010.
Orunbekov said candidly at the time that he had no such funds and began a fundraising campaign, which does not appear to have made much progress. The reporter had no assets to speak of, so the court was limited to simply ordering the closure of his publication. Orunbekov told EurasiaNet.org that was all the authorities appeared interested in anyhow.
Having endured the libel trial, Orunbekov has now ditched journalism and gone into business. “I don’t work anywhere at the moment and I have no stable source of income. So I pay money into Atambayev’s account according to my abilities, from 50 to 1,000 som at a time. Usually, it is 50 som a month. So I am respecting the verdict of the court,” he said. “I will be paying until Atambayev dies, or at least until justice prevails. Well, may he live a long life.”
Another person to be sued for libel earlier this year was Kanatbek Aziz, a lawyer for the opposition Ata-Meken party. A court ordered him to pay 10 million som for speaking at a press conference at which he and a colleague relayed “false information” about the president.
Aziz is going through the motions of appealing the verdict, but he too is bracing for the day when he has to start paying. His plan is to copy Orunbekov’s strategy – to pay small amounts every month until a new government comes to power under which a court might be willing to reconsider the verdict. Aziz said he has absolutely no intention of paying all 10 million som, at least no time soon.
Atambayev’s extreme sensitivity to robust reporting has intensified by several degrees over the past year or so. And he takes criticism personally. At a news conference, he once claimed that “dirty articles” published by the newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek about his brother’s commercial dealings caused him to die of a heart attack in 2015. Vecherniy Bishkek’s staff migrated en masse to Zanoza.kg after an ownership dispute.
Political observers, however, attribute the intensification of the onslaught against the media to the vicissitudes of the political season. A presidential election in October will mark the end of Atambayev’s administration due to term limits. The broad consensus is that he is seeking to guide a handpicked successor into his place so as to retain influence for himself and his associates. Minimizing the number of brickbats tossed by meddling reporters is deemed essential to that process going smoothly.
Zanoza.kg chief editor and co-founder Dina Maslova said she long ago lost faith in the legal system. Constant legal appeals are unlikely ever to improve matters, she said. “He can persecute us to eternity. I am a single mother. I have parents and a younger brother who depend on me. It turns out that the entire state machine is fighting against a person like me,” she said.
Maslova said that the only thing that Atambayev has achieved by having the General Prosecutor’s Office pursue all these cases is generate a tidal wave of jokes and insults at his expense. Kyrgyzstan’s regionally respectable standing in freedom of speech rankings has also taken a hit. “If the lawsuits were withdrawn, it would all be much calmer. We are simply hoping for sense to prevail. The [lawsuits] lead to nothing but an escalation in conflict and mockery,” Maslova said.